This post is the third in a three-part series highlighting youth science competitions that task young people with the real challenges and rewards of a life in research.
The various components of the science process carved out in youth science competitions provide a valuable glimpse into the importance of embracing the competitive edge of your curiosity. Our first two posts have already highlighted therole of head-to-head competition within a niche for driving innovation as well as the skills behind communicating the value of anticipated work through a formal proposal process. That brings us to the challenge of completing the cycle and learning how to convey your results in a way that is not only clear and concise, but also compelling.
There are numerous competitions worthy of note, but this series will be highlighting three which bring out a particular set of skills:
- Competing directly with others as part of a team in a highly specialized field of expertise
- Competing for access to limited resources to investigate a proposed problem
- Utilizing modern technology and media to communicate the importance of your results
The third competition, and the third bullet point, brings us full circle back to the memories of our cardboard science fair trifolds mentioned in the first post. It embraces the question of how the communication side of science has changed with new technology, and how science competitions can change with it: Google Science Fair.
When the Google Science Fair was created in 2011 it entered a ring with a long-established history. Popular since the 1950’s, science fairs have long been challenging students to dive into the scientific process, following a single research question from beginning to end.
The open-ended nature of the competition enables students to pose questions from across the scientific disciplines. They dig into their area of interest to form a deep enough understanding of the subject not only to identify an interesting question, but also to determine a meaningful way to approach the particular part of the phenomena that they would like to investigate. This is a critical skill that researchers use every day, exploring the bounds of current scientific understanding in their fields and identifying pieces that can be broken down into a unique research question.
Once competitors identify their research question and their approach for investigating it, they actually follow their chosen procedure, collect the resulting data, and report on their findings.
As with Science Olympiad and SSEP – and with science overall – it is unlikely that any individual person would be the only one to conceive of a particular research question. That is where a researcher’s, even a student researcher’s, background knowledge in the field and investigation into previous and related work comes into play. This foundation enables the researcher to not only identify multiple possible approaches to a research question, but also compare the strengths and limitations of each approach in the context of the proposed study. This plays a key role in communicating both the value of proposed research before it is funded as well as the merits of results found by a particular method after it is completed.
So take a moment and imagine you are a competitor in the Google Science Fair and you have just finished interpreting your data. You probably feel relieved and accomplished. It might be tempting to think that the most important part of the work is done. If you were a professional researcher it would mean your work has already come a long way. Your proposed approach would have been deemed viable, you would have received the resources necessary to conduct your research, and your collected and interpreted data has provided you with your results.
But this is just the starting point of one of the most important phases of research, when scientists have to dig back into their skills as communicators. It is the stage in which they determine the most accurate and most compelling way to present their results.
Return to your imaginary moment as a student researcher with fresh results and interpretations in hand. Now imagine that those results are truly groundbreaking. Maybe your work has the potential to cure a disease or change the way we produce and use energy. Even if you conducted the most groundbreaking experiment of the century, it wouldn’t have an impact until you are able to explain your methods and your findings in a meaningful way. Just as importantly, no one would be able to test your findings and build on them to make new advances and discoveries in the future.
Communication has always played a vital role in science, with peer-reviewed journals long serving as the preferred mechanism for conveying findings to other scientists. But communication tools and options have been becoming more sophisticated, with advances in computing, telecommunications, and widespread internet access providing new outlets each year.
Google Science Fair seeks to embrace these new tools, believing that “universal access to technology and information can truly make the world a better place.” Their competitors are able to participate from around the world through an online platform, even enabling students to form international teams collaborating on a single project.
In addition to the written summary of their research projects, competitors are able to provide either a narrated slide show or two-minute video explaining their work. This challenges students not only to convey their work in a clear and broken down written format, but also in a stand-alone oral presentation.
Unlike the face-to-face interaction that takes place in front of a poster with follow-up questions, this format pushes students really to think about the best possible way to represent the full scope of their work in a limited time. As the rules clearly state, even if there is more than two minutes of provided material, only the first two minutes will be considered.
This may seem strict and quite short, but any researcher who has ever been part of a poster session at a conference will tell you that two full minutes of someone’s undivided attention to explain your work can be a rare luxury.
But where do these online presentations actually fit within the current scientific landscape? Many scientific journals are actively embracing new media, accepting videos or animations as supplementary material to be linked to their peer-reviewed articles. Some are even exploring the possibility of video abstracts as a better way to introduce the research included in a given article. There are even conferences that allow researchers to attend digitally, listening to presentations from their offices across the globe.
Many scientists are also starting to share and promote their research in formats unlinked to any particular academic journal. Research is starting to be shared on blogs, social media sites, YouTube, and even Twitter. There are even services, like Altmetric, that are tracking the appearances of research on these outlets. Scientists have long been interested in measuring the impact of their research: how many people have read it and how much future work has it inspired? These new analytical tools are adding the impact in the more public arena to the equation.
Research is already assessing the importance of these new measures for the reach of science content into a more public domain and finding that it could be an important new arena. One study found that Twitter activity after an article is first published is correlated with the citations that work receives later on, and another study found similar relationships between early attention and later citations for a number of social media websites. In this context, encouraging young people to think about how to communicate important scientific content through a range of media will likely turn out to be a valuable tool.
As science continues to change shape as new technology shapes stages throughout the scientific process, we can hope that science competitions continue to bring students to play ever larger roles in the research itself. Each new generation has a unique relationship with technology in their daily lives. The more that students are exposed to and experience all aspects of the research process, the more empowered they will be to use their perspective to shape the next great strides in how science is proposed, pursued, and conveyed for years to come.
Thelwall M, Haustein S, Lariviere V, and Sugimoto CR (2013) Do Altmetrics Work? Twitter and Ten Other Social Web Services. PLOS One. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0064841
Eysenbach G (2011) Can Tweets Predict Citations? Metrics of Social Impact Based on Twitter and Correlation with Traditional Metrics of Scientific Impact. 13:4 doi: 10.2196/jmir.2012.
**The author would like to acknowledge that Scientific American is an Official Sponsor of the Google Science Fair**